Question: As a former fighter pilot, I loved the mid-'80s show Call to Glory. Why did it last such a short time? Russell M., Prairie Village, Kan.
Televisionary: As is usual in these situations, Russell, that depends on who's telling the story. One thing's for certain: when the show's two-hour pilot debuted in July 1984 on the night after the Summer Olympics ended, ABC appeared to have a monster hit on its hands. The network had developed more than 30 different promotional spots to promote the series, which initially focused on stories about major events of the '60s as seen through the eyes of recon pilot Col. Raynor Sarnac (Craig T. Nelson) and his family, during the Games and the effort paid off big. Glory's first airing pulled down a 24.8 Nielsen rating and a 44 share, which translated to an audience of about 50 million. Big numbers, right? Sure. Just not for long.
A week later, Glory dropped from the sky, its share plummeting to 29 and spiraling down with each subsequent episode. It didn't seem to matter that it was critically acclaimed (I, like you, remember some great moments from the show); audiences tuned out in droves, the network canned the show and everyone had a theory as to why.
Series creator Jon Avnet, interviewed in June 1985, was convinced he'd never been given adequate time to develop scripts properly. After he and partner Steve Tisch presented the pilot to network execs and asked them to make a quick decision so they could start doing the kind of preparation a historical show demands, the answer was slow in coming. Avnet waited and waited, and then suddenly ABC saw their Olympic opportunity and started putting together big plans.
In May, ABC announced Call to Glory would be a limited series, but would kick off in mid-August instead of the customary September. That, Avnet said, created the major problem right there. "Had we had more time to do the research, the stories would have had more richness," he said. An anonymous source who'd been associated with the series concurred. "Greed got to ABC," he said. "They saw this show, which they considered patriotic, saw the Olympics, and thought wow, this is it. But the show wasn't really ready."
By August, when the trades were reporting on the pilot's big ratings, Avnet was already having problems. His first team of writers had quit over creative differences. His second, headed by the writer of the pilot movie, Ron Cohen, were already kicking up a fuss because, they said, Avnet had abandoned the show's initial vision and wanted to turn it into a soap.
For his part, star Nelson wasn't happy with the scripts, either. When a reporter visited the set at one point, Nelson was refusing to shoot a scene in which Sarnac was set to have yet another fight with his wife (Cindy Pickett), who'd gone from dream mate to angry and distant over the course of but two episodes. "I have a verbal release if we start doing Saran Wrap," he told the episode's director, using his term for evil commercialism. Writers were sent to the set to fix things, and Avnet didn't mince words when he was later told of the dust-up. "Craig has a contract like everyone else Saran Wrap or not and he does what he's told to do," he said.
Not always, apparently. When the numbers began dropping, the network suggested the show shift to plots centering on the family in order to bring more women viewers in. So episodes about the daughter (Elisabeth Shue) staying out all night, the grandfather getting leukemia and Mrs. Sarnac running off to L.A. were created, none of which made Nelson any happier. "God, it's just, after a while, you just say, I can'd do this," he said. "It's fear, it's protecting your behind, it's garbage. It might not survive."
It didn't, and Nelson admitted he didn't always help the situation by creating tension. "My biggest problem has always been me," he conceded. "I was in this meeting with the writers about an episode, and I read the script and I started pulling my usual thing, shouting, 'This isn't it, this isn't right.' Brad Rednitz, one of the writers, said how he tried to incorporate as many ideas of mine as possible. I said, 'You're right, guys, I am a bleep.' How did I get into this power thing that my mind is in? That's what I ask myself sometimes."
People associated with the show may well still be asking themselves what went wrong from time to time, just as you're asking me, Russell. There's obviously no clear answer but one: Like nearly every other show done in before its time, Call to Glory was ultimately killed off by ratings. When they go down, nothing else matters, and no explanations count for nearly much.